Hot Thought

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Does everything happen for a reason?

Does everything happen for a reason?

When people have to cope with difficult situations in their lives, they sometimes reassure themselves by saying that everything happens for a reason. For some people, thinking this way makes it easier to deal with relationship problems, financial crises, disease, death, and even natural disasters such as earthquakes. It can be distressing to think that bad things happen merely through chance or accident. But they do.

The saying that everything happens for a reason is the modern, New Age version of the old religious saying:  “It’s God’s will.”    The two sayings have the same problem – the complete lack of evidence that they’re true.    Not only is there no good evidence that God exists, we have no way of knowing what it is that he (or she) wanted to happen, other than that it actually did happen.  Did God really will that hundreds of thousands of people die in an earthquake in one of the world’s poorest countries?    What could be the reason for this disaster and the ongoing suffering of millions of people deprived of food, water, and shelter?    Why do people find it reassuring that the Haiti earthquake happened for a reason such as the will of God, when such terrible events suggest a high degree of malevolence in the universe or its alleged creator?    Fortunately, such events can alternatively (and with good evidence) be viewed as the result of accidents, and possibly even of chance.

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The idea that chance is an objective property of the universe was advocated in the nineteenth century by the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who called this doctrine tychism, from the Greek word for chance.    Scientific support for the doctrine came in the twentieth century with the development of quantum theory, which is often interpreted as implying that some events such as radioactive decay are inherently unpredictable. 

Even if events that affect human lives do not happen by quantum chance, many of them should be viewed as happening by accident, in the sense that they are the improbable result of the intersection of independent causal chains.    The deaths in Haiti, for example, came about because of the results of many causal chains, primarily (1) the historical events that led to millions of people living near Port-au-Prince, and (2) the seismic events occurring in the tangle of tectonic faults near the intersection of two crustal plates.   These deaths were accidental in that the intersection of the unconnected causal chains was unpredictable.  Neither history nor seismology are random, but their intersections often are so unforeseeable that we should call them accidental.

The doctrine that everything happens for a reason has intellectual variants.   The German philosopher Hegel maintained that in historical development the real is rational and the rational is real.  Similarly, before the recent meltdowns in the financial system, it was a dogma of economic theory that individuals and markets are inherently rational.   Some naïve evolutionary biologists and psychologists assume that all common traits and behaviors must have evolved from an optimizing process of natural selection.   In history, economics, biology, and psychology, we should always be willing to consider evidence for the alternative hypothesis that some events occur because of a combination of chance, accidents, and human irrationality.   For example, Keynes attributed financial crises in part to “animal spirits”, by which he meant the emotional processes that can make people swing between irrational exuberance and pessimistic despair.  

But if the real isn’t rational, how can we cope with life’s disasters?  Fortunately, even without religious or New Age illusions, people have many psychological resources for coping with the difficulties of life.   These include cognitive strategies for generating explanations and problem solutions, and emotional strategies for managing the fear, anxiety, and anger that naturally accompany setbacks and threats.  Psychological research has identified many ways to build resilience in individuals and groups, such as developing problem solving skills and strong social networks. Life can be highly meaningful even if some things that happen are just accidents.  Stuff happens and you deal with it.

Post to come:  What makes life worth living?

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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